Leaders lead by example. Churchills panegyric “blood, toil, sweat and tears” pledge to his public steeled Britain’s spine. At the 1968 St. Jean Baptiste parade in Montreal, youthful louts began to hurl missiles at the reviewing stand. As national television watched, Mayor Jean Drapeau and all the other hotshots fled to safety. Pierre Elliott Trudeau hunkered down alone, defying the thugs to hit him with a single rock or beer bottle. The next day, an exultant English Canada gave him at the ballot box the first of his three straight Liberal victories.
The Japanese, 60 years ago last week, shocked the United States out of its naïve isolation by the sneak attack that destroyed the American naval fleet lying supine at Pearl Harbor outside Honolulu in blissful Hawaii. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the patrician millionaire from a famous family, calmed the American nation with his famed “fireside chats”—his sly public-relations sense indicated by his little dog Fala always at his side.
Today, of course, every president tries to emulate the Norman Rockwell touch. Bill Clinton tried to deflect his juvenile sexual adventures in the Oral Office by walking on the lawn to the White House helicopter with resident dog in tow. George W Bush would no more forget his toothbrush than neglect the mandatory pooch who is dragged by the leashed neck up the steps leading to the chopper headed for Camp David. What would a president do without CNN?
Jimmy Carter, as president, tried to emulate FDR, by initiating “town hall” meetings with “ordinary” Americans while wearing a cardigan sweater, which succeeded only in making him look silly. We have now moved post-9/11, postAfghanistan—into a new mode. It is the most powerful man in the world morphing into a rock star, on time, all the time, the new successor to Bernard Shaw at Baghdad. You want airtime? You get Bushtime? It’s facetime. Whether you like it or not.
Dubya Bush cannot be avoided these days. He’s more reliable than the postman. Every day when you turn on the telly, he’s there, getting more confident each day, more at ease with the microphone, droppin’ his g’s and announcing he wants the evil-doers dead or alive. It’s not Churchill and it’s not FDR, but you can’t avoid him, his newly-greying hair apparent even when the vacuum cleaner wipes out his voice.
We all know that Mackenzie King, that kinky litde cutie, could never have survived in the age of television. Marshall McLuhan taught us that TV made Trudeau, just as it killed Bob Stanfield, with his awkward body language the best prime minister Canada never had. Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s principal secretary in the PMO, has since written that his boss would enter the House of Commons as an actor—a different actor—every day, because he knew it was basically entertainment, not politics. One day, he would be arrogant. Another day? He would sulk, passing off irate questions from the Opposition opposite to minor cabinet ministers. Third day? Witty with possibly a “fuddle-duddle”—playing to the compliant Ottawa Press Gallery who sat above, dying for a single quote. It is why Parson Manning, weary of the batde, observes that it is called Question Period, rather than Answer Period, because you never get any answers.
And it is why, of course, that Mister Bush—the most illexperienced American politician ever to vault into the White House (most Americans who went to the polling box voted against him)—is on the tube every day, outlasting even the vacuum cleaners. He is the new Regis Philbin of politics wearing, instead of that new gruesome TV personality dark garb, the mandatory white shirt and blue single-breasted suit that every Washington politician and lobbyist must wear. (The most vigorous and energetic nation on earth has the most hide-bound uniform for adult males on earth—almost as boring as all those Afghan look-alike men in their tiresome robes and headgear. The scene in any Washington restaurant at noon is almost, in reverse, like being in Kabul.)
Dubya, gaining confidence with the news media, in recent days has moved on from Philbin to becoming the world’s most powerful man transformed into Oprah. In Orlando last week, trying to help brother Jeb retain his Florida governorship (how can you have two brothers named Jeb and Dubya?), he roamed the stage with a hand mike, for all the world resembling a talkshow host. Already we have the strange (though understandable) situation of the underground vice-president Dick Cheney, hidden in a secure cave under the White House in case the big guy gets bumped off by terrorists, while the big guy perfects his talents in talking about the “folks” who are gonna get killed in the real caves. Nothing is strange anymore. E3
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